The 2018 Turkish Presidential Election Results
Center for American Progress, Senior Fellow
4 July, 2018
As everybody knows, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected President on June 24th, 10 days ago. He won with 52,6% of the vote, far ahead of his next closest challenger, Muharrem İnce of the Republican Peoples’ Party, or CHP by its Turkish acronym. İnce received 30.6%, 22% points less than Erdoğan. By winning a majority, Erdoğan averted the need for a second round runoff against İnce. The result continued the pattern of narrow Erdoğan victories, a reflection of the deepening polarization of Turkish society between pro and anti-Erdoğan forces.
This is only the second time that Turks elected their President directly. The first time was 2014, when Erdoğan also got slightly more than half the votes in the first round. However, this election marks the first time in Turkish history that Turks voted simultaneous and separately for the head of their government and for their parliament. The election and swearing of Erdoğan and the parliament on July 8th this coming Sunday will trigger a new system in Turkey with greatly enhanced powers for the Presidency. This is the result of wide ranging government-sponsored constitutional amendments, narrowly passed, possibly of the result of fraud, in a public referendum last year. In this system the President will be the all powerful master of the executive branch with unreviewable powers of appointment and a broad ability to govern through decree. The Prime Ministry will seize to exist. Nevertheless the Parliament will retain some important powers at least on paper, including the right to overrule presidential decrees.
Let’s look at the parliamentary vote as well. In the parliament vote Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, AKP by its Turkish acronym, won an unprecedented sixth straight election although for the second time in the past three elections it failed to win outright parliamentary majority. It came very close, it won 295 seats in the 600-seat Parliament leaving it just six votes short of a majority. Erdoğan is likely to pick up the extra votes he needs in Parliament through the alliance he has maintained over the past three years formally during the election campaign but otherwise informally with the hard right Turkish nationalist Party, called the Nationalist Movement Party or MHP by its Turkish acronym. Erdoğan will also probably try to allure a few parliamentarians to AKP from other parties to ensure an absolute majority for AKP on its own so that it won’t have to rely on MHP. In that regard a likely target is former Interior Minister Meral Akşener of İYİ Parti or Good Party.
“Good” is the English translation of the name of her party, it perhaps might strike some people as a funny name, it doesn’t tell you much about what the party stands for except that it inspires to be good, but when written with upper case letters is it is reminiscent of a symbol that is dear to many Turkish nationalists, that evokes an ancient Turkic people. Akşener herself is seen as quite nationalist, and indeed she used to be a member of MHP. Akşener’s party, newly formed last year, as in fact a breakaway from MHP was expected to far outpace its nationalist rival MHP in the parliamentary vote. In fact, MHP won the intra-nationalist contest finishing fourth overall, with 11% of the vote and 49 seats to the İYİ Parti’s fifth place finish with 10% of the vote and 43 seats.
Many who joined İYİ Parti did so because they expected it to be a winner or at minimum at least the winner of the nationalist right with the prospect of absorbing what was anticipated to be a collapsed MHP. Now, that that prospect is no longer tenable, that is the MHP very clearly did not collapse, and now that Iyi is out in the wilderness of the opposition with no real leverage to speak of within Parliament, it will not be surprising to see some of its members of Parliament seduced into singing up with Erdoğan’s AKP, providing AKP with the few extra MPs necessary to achieve the absolute parliamentary majority it could not win at the polls.
I have mentioned that AKP came first, MHP was fourth, İYİ was fifth, so what about the in-between? The secular Republican Peoples Party, or CHP, that’s the Party of presidential candidate Muharrem İnce who we mentioned a few minutes ago, and more famously the party established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, nearly a century ago, that party finished second in the parliamentary vote, with 22,6% of the vote and 146 seats. It marked the sixth straight parliamentary election in which CHP is finished at distanced second to AKP. In third place, which is the the Kurdish rights-focused and Kurdish-dominated, Peoples’ Democracy Party or HDP with 11,7% of the vote and 67 seats. Under Turkish law a party must receive 10% of the national vote in order to enter parliament. HDP succeeded in doing that for the first time in June 2015 and this is now the third consecutive election in which it has managed to win parliamentary seats. In both, the presidential and parliamentary elections, the basic pattern of recent elections remained intact. The secular CHP wins the western Aegean coast and the western Mediterranean coast. The HDP dominates the Kurdish population in the south-east and MHP, Turkish nationalists have a meaningful presence in central Anatolia which they share as a junior partner to AKP. But the AKP itself remains the only Party in Turkey that is competitive all over the nation winning the overwhelming majority of the provinces and rarely finishing worse than second anywhere.
The elections results provoke myriad of questions but let me just try to address four of them in the brief time we have. They are: First, was the election free and fair? Second, why did AKP get so many fewer votes for Parliament than its leader Erdoğan received for President? Third, why did MHP performed so much better than expected? The polls were showing prior to the election that MHP would get somewhere between 3-6% of the vote which is what led to the expectation that it might crumble and be absorbed by Akşener’s İYİ Parti. And fourth, how significant is it that the Kurdish-dominated HDP got into Parliament for the third consecutive election? Does it hold any meaning for the prospect of a solution to Turkey’s long-standing and most difficult issue, the Kurdish problem?
First, was the election free and fair? Clearly, the campaign wasn’t fair. Turkey’s media industry is overwhelmingly controlled by pro-Erdoğan forces, it is said that roughly 90% of the media is pro-Erdoğan and that media made sure that the opposition got minimum covered even when millions attended opposition rallies in the closing days of the campaign. In the Kurdish dominated south-east, access to the ballot box was suppressed for at least tens of thousands of voters and possibly up to 200.000, whose place of voting, polling stations were moved to distanced towns, ostensibly for security reasons. This was somewhat odd, because if anything, security is much better now in those areas. There is less violence in those areas than there was during the last several elections, when the polling stations were not moved.
Further, thousands of members of the pro-Kurdish rights HDP were arrested in the course of the campaign and to top it off, the entire campaign and election were conducted under emergency rule, which has been in place for two years and gives Turkish security officials extraordinary powers to suppress demonstrations and other manifestations of free speech. Ok, but was the vote count itself honest? There are plenty of rumours of ballot box staffing and tampering and the election was conducted under an election law passed in March that seemingly facilitated ballot box staffing. Nevertheless, no clear proof of fraud has emerged; unless and until it does the count must be deemed legitimate. In his concession speech widely viewed as gracious, the candidate who finished number two in the presidential race, Muharrem İnce, claimed that there had been fraud, but not enough to explain what he calls the ten million vote gap – it was actually eleven million – between him and Erdoğan. And therefore, he said, Erdoğan should be seen as the legitimate winner. This is somewhat puzzling, because İnce did not address the issue of whether the fraud had been large enough to explain the roughly 1.8 million vote gap between Erdoğan’s official vote total and the 50% mark that would have forced the second round run-off. And I should mention, 1.8 may sound like a lot but in the referendum on the constitutional amendments last year the OSCE delegation that monitored, estimated that it was possible that up between 1-2.5 million votes were fraudulent. So, that 1.8 would fall within the range between 1-2.5 million. That doesn’t means there was that much fraud, only that the vote total that put Erdoğan over the 50% mark in the first round is far more significant than the vote gap between him and İnce. OSCE election monitors were also present this time around and they will issue a report in just a few weeks rendering their assessment of the election and the vote cap. That report will be important in shaping perceptions no doubt, but whatever the verdict of the OSCE, the official results as announced by the Turkish government already are the ones that will stand.
Questions two and three. The gap between the Erdoğan presidential vote and the AKP parliamentary vote on the one hand and the unanticipated success of MHP on the other are linked. Those two questions are linked. For the first time Turkish voters were casting separate and simultaneous votes for the head of government, the President, and for parliament, as I pointed out. Also for the first time, some of the parties were running for parliament in blocks. There were two main blocks. The Cumhur İttifakı or People’s Block, which grouped AKP and MHP, and the Millet İttifakı or Nation Block which grouped three main opposition parties: the secular CHP, Akşener’s nationalistic İYİ Parti and a small Islamist but anti-Erdoğan party called Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party).
Besides the parties in these two blocks, the only competitive party in the election was the Kurdish-dominated HDP, which did not affiliate with any block. Actually, it was widely reported that HDP wanted to be part of the opposition block but that idea was vetoed by the Turkish nationalist Meral Akşener, the head of İYİ Parti. So, AKP ended up with 42.6% of the parliamentary vote, exactly 10%points less than Erdoğan received in the presidential contest. We don’t know why so many Erdoğan voters chose not to vote for his party but we can hazard a reasonable guess. It’s seems likely that many voters recognising that Erdoğan was about to assume immense new presidential powers decided to check his power by voting for AKP’s only block partner MHP. For such voters, those who wanted Erdoğan as President but with some degree of checks and balances, MHP really was the only choice since they weren’t going to go so far to vote for a party in the opposition block.
This also helps to explain why MHP ended up outdistancing the İYİ Parti. Originally, Akşener was hoping her party would attract not only most of the former MHP voters but also former AKP voters. I think she might have been able to do that but for one fact, she wanted to run for president and her presidential campaign was an abysmal failure. A part of that was that she couldn’t get any traction in the media which wasn’t entirely her fault for reasons we have already mentioned. But she came in a distant fourth in the presidential race with only 8% of the vote. Not only did she trailed Erdoğan and İnce, but she trailed the Kurdish party’s candidate as well who was actually forced to campaign from prison – that’s another story in itself. Thorough presidential campaign was a failure. In retrospect it seems her best bet would have been to run only for parliament unaffiliated with any block, while declaring her party would work with whoever wins the Presidency on an issue by issue basis. Had she done that, her party may indeed have attracted some of the checks and balances voters, those who voted for Erdoğan but not his party that otherwise went to MHP. Of course this is only my speculation.
The fourth question is: What’s in store for the HDP, the pro-Kurdish rights party? They were celebrating in Diyarbakir, the main city in the Kurdish populated area of Turkey, celebrating that is on June 24th because HDP had once more succeeded in getting over the 10% threshold and getting into Parliament. But there is little prospect in my view that anything good will come of it regarding the long standing Kurdish problem. The HDP was helped getting over the 10% threshold by small numbers of non-Kurdish Turkish liberals, some supporting HDP’s liberal agenda and some voting merely tactically to get them into parliament to diminish AKP’s portion of parliament. I won’t (inaudible) you with further explanations of Turkey’s electoral system, but suffice it to say that had HDP fallen below 10% and thus failed to get into Parliament, AKP would have won dozens of additional seats and thus would have had an overwhelming parliamentary majority instead of falling just short of a majority, as actually happened. And that’s why some voters who did not necessarily agree with or like HDP voted for HDP tactically as a means of suppressing AKP’s parliamentary representation.
Erdoğan dislikes the HDP which has actively opposed him and he shows no interest in reviving the peace process he once courageously pursued with the Kurds. That process came to a decisive end with the Turkish military’s onslaught against several Kurdish towns where pro-PKK forces were (inaudible) three years ago. To the extent Erdoğan might be inclined to renew the peace process the MHP, his unofficial coalition partner, will be there to make sure he gets back to the Turkish nationalist path. The Kurdish problem anyway is unlikely ever to be solved through a parliamentary process unless there is initiative from the head of the government and there is no prospect of that now. 20% of HDP MP’s from the last parliament are in jail, many others were detained and then released during their term of office. Nobody should be surprised if the current incumbents meet a similar fate.
Notwithstanding the implementation of a new presidency-focused system in Turkey, governance probably won’t look much different to outsiders than previously, particularly not much different than it has for the past two years since the declaration of emergency rule following the failed coup attempts of July 2016. Under emergency rule Erdoğan has essentially been able to decree whatever he wants and the constitutional court has said that it has no jurisdiction over emergency rule decrees. So, opposition efforts to contest those decrees have fallen on deaf ears.
Now, following this election Erdoğan will continue to call all the shots and he will be able to do so constitutionally by decree, based on these new powers given in last year’s referendum. Given AKP’s near majority in Parliament and its close working relationship with the Turkish nationalist MHP as well as its prospect for using its considerable patronage and other forms of leverage to allure other MPs from other parties, Erdoğan can pretty much count on having a rubber stamp parliament. Continuity in foreign policy is also likely, which isn’t good news for the US, the western alliance, Israel, Egypt and many of the Arab monarchies. It is good news for Qatar where Turkey has established a small military base and which has come to view relations with Turkey as critical in fending off the isolation and boycott imposed on it last year by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Erdoğan’s resentment over Greek refusal to extradite accused Gulenist Turkish soldiers who fled Turkey in the wake of the coup is likely to continue to rile Aegean relations. Nor is there any prospect of Turkey’s softening its approach to the Cyprus problem and related eastern Mediterranean gas exploration issues.
Now, is there any chance that Erdoğan will alter the nationalist, (inaudible) Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic path he has pursued in recent years? It seems to me, perhaps, only in this case. Many economists are expecting a very serious economic downturn in Turkey in the months to come. Many are saying a crisis is likely. The Turkish lira has lost roughly 15% of its value against the dollar already in 2018. Year on year inflation is at a 14-year high, measuring it just over 15% in June. Now, it should be remembered that the Turkish economy has often proven more resilient than economists’ predictions, we should keep that in mind, still should the worst happen and should Turkey need an IMF bailout, Turkey might just project a friendlier attitude toward the wealthy western nations that dominate IMF decision-making. At this point, however, the reasonable overall conclusion must be that Turkish voters have chosen five more years of continuity and Erdoğan dominance. The only exit from recent policies during those five years being the whims of an all-powerful President, Recep Tayipp Erdoğan – the longest serving leader of Turkey in the history of the Republic.
Thank you very much.